In almost all slasher films and psycho-thrillers, from Psycho (1960) through Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980) on, there is a deep-seated conservatism, a reinforcing of puritan ethics that the sexually impure will be punished, that those who fail to take life seriously, those who indulge in dope and alcohol will be punished for their sins. The Stepfather is hardly different the point where Terry OQuinn loses it for good with his adopted family of Shelley Hack and Jill Schoelen is the moment he finds Schoelen kissing her boyfriend goodnight on the front porch. The ingenuity of The Stepfather is that it consciously carps at (rather than reinforces) the very puritan values that most American psycho-thrillers embody. This is a film that seems to have been conceived as Father Knows Best (1954-60) with Norman Bates playing the father.
You could maybe draw parallels between The Stepfather and another film that came out the same year Fatal Attraction (1987). Both films are psycho-thrillers. Both centre around concerns with Family Values, a buzzword that emerged in the 1980s, coined by conservative American political campaigners. Both are also films at mirror opposites of one another. Fatal Attraction concerns itself with a family man (Michael Douglas) who makes a bad decision (to have a fling) and pays for his mistake; the warmly presented status quo of his family and forgiving wife is restored when he eliminates the psychopathic, feminist-sympathizing single woman who seemed determined to wreak her revenge by tearing his home life apart. By contrast, The Stepfather casts the man of the household defending these Family Values as the psychopath. Fatal Attraction is concerned with preserving Family Values there is no questioning about the wholesomeness of Michael Douglass life with his wife and daughter; where as on the other hand, The Stepfather is intent upon showing these values to be cloying, outmoded and makes the clear point that the ludicrously clean-living ideals of family as promulgated by 1950s tv shows are out of step in the 1980s. The contrast between both films can be seen even more so in the way the two were made where Fatal Attraction was a big-budget studio film, The Stepfather was an independent, modestly-budgeted production; and where Fatal Attraction was a colossal box-office success but polarized public opinion, The Stepfather found only modest success but great critical acclaim.
There is some fine direction from Joseph Ruben. The opening, which cuts across a quintessential suburban avenue into a bathroom where Terry OQuinn changes into a three-piece suit and walks out through a living room filled with the butchered remains of his family, calmly picking up childrens toys on his way out, is one of the most ingeniously nonchalant and disturbing set-ups in any horror film. Mostly, this is a film where the suspense is carried by the uncommonly tight plotting (apart from a crack Bondurant makes about charging his schizophrenic patient double that no self-respecting psychologist would make). The script comes from thriller writer Donald E. Westlake, whose books have been adapted into films like Point Blank (1967), The Grifters (1990) and The Ax (2005). Westlake mounts some gripping twists there is that oh so delicious moment where psychologist Charles Lanyer, pretending to be a client of OQuinns, accidentally traps himself with a slip of the tongue, or the chilling moment where Terry OQuinn starts to lose touch and slip into the new role he is creating during a phone-call.
A great deal of the films believability comes from the performance by Terry OQuinn. It is an extraordinary performance that OQuinn gives, where he can go from playing a man of instant warmth with a patient and utter belief in the banalities of Leave It to Beaver (1957-60) Americana to a sudden cold glint of eyes and chilling clench of jaw. A sense of sympathy is even created for OQuinn there is a lovely shot when he turns from his family crumbling around him to longingly stare at the perfect family group across the street from him and one is given a disturbingly plausible touch of insight into his corner of the American Dream.
The film digs away with an at times unnervingly incongruous sense of black humour My fatherll kill me, is Jill Schoelens prophetic first thought upon news of her expulsion from school; or Terry OQuinns return from murdering Schoelens therapist: Sweetheart, I have some bad news about Dr Bondurant, followed by a pregnant wait, Hes not going to be able to make his appointment. The only point the film falters is at the climax, which is routine in terms of the genre, where Joseph Ruben seems to see the need to take it into traditional slasher territory Jill Schoelen taking a gratuitous shower and with Terry OQuinn wielding a knife and predictably getting up again after being stabbed.
There were two sequels, Stepfather II (1989), which featured a return performance from Terry OQuinn, and the terrible Stepfather III (1992), where OQuinn was replaced by Robert Wightman and the difference explained away by plastic surgery. Neither film emerges with the conceptual ingenuity that this does and both are routine slasher films. As part of the fad for 70s/80s remakes, there was a remake of the original with the dull The Stepfather (2009) where Terry OQuinn was replaced by Dylan Walsh.
Director Joseph Ruben had previously made the sf film Dreamscape (1984) about psychics warring inside peoples dreams. For a brief time after The Stepfather, Ruben seemed to go onto a career in psycho-thrillers with Sleeping with the Enemy (1991), which had Julia Roberts as a wife pursued by a psycho husband, and The Good Son (1993) with Macaulay Culkin as a psychopathic child. Ruben has since gone onto much blander fare with the action film Money Train (1995) and the Malaysian jail imprisonment horror Return to Paradise (1998), although did return to the genre with the interesting alien abduction film The Forgotten (2004).